Movement Generation’s Gopal Dayaneni on California’s Wildfires

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Like many of y’all, the MG collective is trying to wrap our heads around the roots and scale of devastation of California’s “Camp Fire,” now the deadliest in state history (the second time we’ve said that in less than a year). On Wednesday, as Gopal was talking about the wildfires, Brooke pulled out a tape recorder and began recording. Below is the (lightly edited) transcript. It’s by no means our collective’s complete thoughts on the fire, but we hope it is a useful jumping off place for conversation about the intersection of the wildfire, ecological disruption, investor-owned utilities vs. energy democracy, incarcerated labor, and rural-urban interfaces. Want to join the conversation? We’d welcome your thoughts in the comments.

Aerial footage shows homes destroyed by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, on Thursday, November 15, 2018. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

Brooke Anderson: Wait, that thing you just said about the wildfires – can you say it again? While I pull out my phone and record it this time? Because you’re making connections we’re not hearing in the way the fires are being talked about right now and people need to hear this shit.

Gopal Dayaneni: Just listening to the radio, every dimension of the wildfires is being explored in isolation. There are stories about the relationship between climate change and the wildfires, about PG&E power lines, about the urban-wildland interface, about non-management of forests because of the timber industry, and even about incarcerated firefighters. There are plenty of stories but they all exist in isolation. They are not helping people see that all of this is the emergent consequence of a common problem.

Just listening to the radio, every dimension of the wildfires is being explored in isolation… There are plenty of stories but they all exist in isolation. They are not helping people see that all of this is the emergent consequence of a common problem.

Brooke Anderson: Right.

Gopal Dayaneni: Climate change is increasing the likelihood of these epic wildfires. One of the things that causes climate change is the burning of fossil fuels. We get our electricity from centralized PG&E power plants (coal then natural gas) that require enormous distribution grids. Power lines move electricity from these massive centralized power plants all across the state, through forested areas. These massive centralized power plants are part of the thing that causes climate change. That climate change is then responsible for epic drought, broken wood, and increased fuel load.

Brooke Anderson: You lost me. What do you mean by “broken wood”?

Gopal Dayaneni: One of the primary causes of downed power lines isn’t that the wind just knocks the power lines over. It’s the dead, broken wood from the millions of trees that have been lost because of drought and disease, both rooted in ecological disruption. Those get blown around in the wind, knock down power lines, and start fires. And of course when we have a drought and then some rain we end up with fast growing ground cover that is more likely to burn. There is also the decades of fire-repression that increases the fuel load.

It’s also that centralized, utility scale energy infrastructure – the grids where you can move electricity wherever you want – that enables development right up against the wildland in many parts of the state. So the urban-wildland interface is increasingly driven by access to electricity. That power generation is causing climate change which is exacerbating the conditions and it depends on infrastructure that is most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. If we had decentralized the electricity infrastructure from the beginning, we’d have much less carbon-intensive, much more resilient energy systems. We’d have a lot less infrastructure spread over a huge area that is managed by a single entity. It’d be a constraint on your ability to build developments on the edge of the forest. It’s all related.

If we had decentralized the electricity infrastructure from the beginning, we’d have much less carbon-intensive, much more resilient energy systems.

Brooke Anderson: Energy democracy is not the conversation that people are having around the wildfires right now.

Gopal Dayaneni: Democratizing and decentralizing our energy infrastructure actually makes it less vulnerable to things like wildfires. Right now it’s impossible to maintain centralized infrastructure in a cost effective, timely efficient manner, so the cost of that maintenance has been externalized.

Brooke Anderson: Onto who?

Gopal Dayaneni: Paradise. It’s gone!! Externalized onto everyone. Hopefully PG&E will go bankrupt and we can take it over.

Brooke Anderson: Where do you see people doing the work to decentralize and democratize energy systems? Where are people winning?

Gopal Dayaneni: Local, community choice aggregation – taking energy back from investor-owned utilities – is definitely a huge one. And all the work people are doing around community solar. It’s not because the answer is the technology. Solar panels isn’t the solution. It’s not about the technology. It’s about governance. Centralization is part of the problem. But decentralization and democratization are not the same thing. If decentralization happens but corporate control remains (whether it is Solar City or BP solar) – where we or communities are not in control of the energy system – then it becomes not about meeting people’s energy needs and resilience needs, but about maximizing profit. Profit always creates externalities. You have to externalize cost and consequence onto someone else to maximize profit. You’re either exploiting workers or exploiting nature. So there’s externalization inherent in that process which is why democratization and equity are as important as decentralization.

I also think the win against the coal export terminal here in Oakland is huge. Not moving coal across the planet is a really good idea. It’s not just about the carbon that is released from coal fired power plants. It’s the world that is created through that kind of energy released into the system. That’s the thing that creates the sprawl, development, erosion of natural carbon sinks and wildlands that protect us against these vulnerabilities.

Brooke Anderson: Can we talk about incarcerated firefighters? At MG, we talk about shocks (acute moments of disruption), slides (slower, incremental changes which are not acute but can be equally catastrophic), and shifts (the cultural and systemic changes we seek). And how we need to harness the shocks and slides toward the shifts we want to win. I’ve heard you talk about wildfires as shocks and mass incarceration as a slide. Can you connect the two for us?

Gopal Dayaneni: There is no way to internalize the costs of the real consequences that have been set in motion through colonialism, slavery, and climate change (which is the next iteration of that systemic crisis). The cost is unbearable. There is no way to internalize the true cost of it. There are just further and further externalities. The only way we have enough people to fight fires is to re-enslave people. That’s the assumption in order to maintain the system.

The only way we have enough people to fight fires is to re-enslave people.

In terms of the wildfires, you can think of them as shocks. They are exactly what a shock is. People think shocks are unpredictable. They are only unpredictable in that you don’t know exactly when it is going to happen, but it is entirely predictable in that it is the reasonably predictable consequences of the system playing out exactly as it is set up to. We know this is going to happen. So the question is what do we put in place to address it?

There’s also the slide of the continually expanding Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). Policing and prisons were built off of the exploitation of labor, the re-enslavement of black folks, the leasing of convict labor. That is not the business model of the PIC anymore. Their business model is finance. Investors invest in building bigger and bigger prison infrastructure projects. The same banks, investors, and private prison companies that are building these things are fighting for mandatory minimums, increased border enforcement, and criminalization of immigrants. They are driving these policies to fill the beds to justify the existence of these things so they can extract money from the state and federal coffers. We’ll always keep the prisons full so it’s a safe bet to make money off of the financing of the prison industrial system. So then you have this ever-increasing caged population of humans and that’s butting up against this ever-increasing catastrophe of climate disruption and California wildfires. And it’s like two great tastes that taste great together for capitalist bullshit.

Brooke Anderson: The fact that the wildfires is happening closer to urban areas is part of why the toxicity is so intense – because it’s one thing to have trees up in flames, it’s another to have plastics, upholstery, cars, fuel, batteries, light bulbs incinerated. You used to work at Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. You understand better than anyone else the toxins in the air. People know it’s smoky, but I don’t think most people really understand the full extent of what they’re breathing right now. Can you break it down for us?

Gopal Dayaneni: Oh yeah, they’re not wildfires. They are toxic waste incinerators. We’re talking about incinerating toxic waste. Let’s take flame retardants. Ironically, when flame retardants don’t stop fire, then they become toxic and aerosolized. Then when you burn vinyl and plastics, you get furans and dioxins. The incineration of vinyl is high production of dioxins. The particulates are real too. Then there are all the metals. And pressure-treated wood.

They’re not wildfires. They are toxic waste incinerators.

Brooke Anderson: Wait, what’s wrong with pressure-treated wood?

Gopal Dayaneni: Pressure treated wood is no longer made with arsenic, but old buildings with pressure-treated wood have arsenic in them. So that gets incinerated and is now out in the soil. But not even new treated wood should be burned. There’s also Canadian chipboard, formaldehydes, and all the chemicals they use to bind plywood. Plywood is the most safe it is ever going to be when it is in the wall. It is toxic to make and toxic when burned.

So we’re talking about a lot of toxic materials, let alone the synergistic effects, let alone when you incinerate them! These are persistent bioaccumulative pollutants. The consequences of it aren’t just the smoky air today. We’re releasing bioaccumulative toxins that are going to travel and migrate over great distances. They’ll work their way up the food chain and into our bodies. We’re chucking the problem into the future. It will have generational consequences. The point is – wildfires that hit urban spaces have both immediate damage and serious long-term consequences.

Brooke Anderson: The state is on fire from both ends. This is the second time in a year that a fire has been named the most destructive in the state’s history. People can’t breathe. It’s intense. More people – not movement folks but the masses – are using the words “new normal.” There’s a certain despair people are feeling. I’ve heard you talk about how despair leads to desperation which leads to false solutions and shortcuts. What do you mean by that?

Gopal Dayaneni: It is easy to despair. There is clearly an urgency to the climate crisis. The challenge is when urgency enables despair – or more directly desperation – which then enables false solutions. We have to have a sense of urgency but there are no shortcuts. There are lots of examples of this, where we end up throwing our weight behind the system despite our recognition of it as the problem. Well, because the suffering we are experiencing through the collapse of the system is so unbearable, the thing we lean on is bringing stability back to the system. This is how capitalism resolves its crises. Capitalism is about the daily resolution of crises and always has been.

Brooke Anderson: We should stop now. This is going to take forever to transcribe!! Any final thoughts?

Gopal Dayaneni: There are all these things that have created the conditions we’re in and that make us even more vulnerable: maintaining centralized energy systems that aren’t based on local and regional resources; building massive coal and gas fired power plants across the state; and managing agriculture by damming rivers, controlling water, and moving it over mountains. The communities that are going to be the most resilient are the ones that lead with a vision of Just Transition; become more local and regional; constrain the development, consumption, production of resources; and transition to community-controlled energy. Those things won’t just help address the long term issue of climate disruption over the next 50-100 years, they’re also what will make the consequences less bad and more equitably distributed.